In the small Tuscan municipality of Massa Marittima, here still stands what was known in the 14th century AD as the Palazzo dell’Abbondanza (literally, Palace of Abundance), following the construction of a grain storehouse on the first floor. It is a three-storey building, on the long side of which are three pointed arches that allow access to the water tanks of the Fonte dell’Abbondanza (Fountain of Abundance). Used for water supply and connected to the city aqueduct, the Fountain was built in 1265 at the behest of the Ghibelline Chief Magistrate (Podestà) Ildebrando Malcondine of Pisa.
During restoration work in 1999, a fresco decorating the left arcade was uncovered, and was immediately named The Tree of Fertility. The gigantic wall painting depicts a tree in the centre on whose branches grow small leaves and male sexual organs. At the roots of the tree, two distinct scenes take place in which women take centre stage: on the left, four of them seem intent on performing a kind of ritual and appear to be arguing, while black birds, presumably crows, fly above them; on the right, four women stand arm in arm.
The first known interpretation following the rediscovery focuses on a direct link between the male organ and water, seen as a symbol of life and fertility since the time of the Greeks and then in the Middle Ages. It was also an auspicious omen of fertility and prosperity for the town and its inhabitants.
The dating of the fresco is still uncertain. According to some studies, it was commissioned at the same time as the Fountain, while others attribute it to the Guelph administration that ruled the city from 1267 to 1335.
Academic George Ferzoco favours the latter date, with an interpretation of the subject that is diametrically opposed to the claim for the former date. In Ferzoco’s view, the fresco was created by the Guelph government as a warning and portent to the town of what would happen if it reverted to Ghibelline rule: sterility and famine. The interpretation also references and likens the rituals performed by the depicted women to those described in Malleus Maleficarum, literally The Hammer of the Maleficent, or Witches, a Latin-language treatise from 1487 published by the Dominican friar Heinrich Kramer and his confrere Jacob Sprenger. The ceremony depicted and described in the treatise is supposed to have been performed by witches who, after emasculating men, would place their phalluses in birds’ nests and grow new ones for use in other rites and ceremonies.
According to Ferzoco, the painting might also be interpreted as the first political administrative manifesto in history, typical of what in Tuscany was the tradition of politicised public art promoted through the creation of large murals and frescoes, such as those by Lorenzetti.
A more recent interpretation, on the other hand, by Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz identifies Ghibelline Ildebrando Malcondine as having commissioned the Tree of Fertility. He allegedly had the fresco painted as a testimony to the public work performed for the town of Massa Marittima, a symbol of Ghibelline good governance, which would finally solve both the problem of water supply through the fountain and aqueduct and the problem of grain and other cereal stocks in the event of famine.
There are, however, a number of inconsistencies in all the interpretations offered to date, making it impossible to agree on an unambiguous interpretation of the ancient fresco. Indeed, this makes it intriguing and the subject of research and studies by Italian and foreign institutions, with the aura of mystery that hovers over it.